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Students without a certain amount of head or body hair will be barred from playing sports

Jeff schools trim hair drug test loophole

Wednesday June 11, 2003
By Rob Nelson
West Bank bureau

Jefferson Parish public school students without a certain amount of head or body hair will be barred from playing sports or participating in other strenuous activities under a tightened drug-testing policy that will go into effect in the fall.

Closing what they described as a loophole in the year-old policy, which they said resulted in some students shaving most of their hair so they could provide urine samples instead of hair for testing, school officials have tossed out the option of urine samples except for medically documented reasons.

School officials started testing last fall as part of a pilot program. Tests were mandatory for about 2,800 students wanting to participate in sports or activities such as cheerleading or dance teams.

"A lot of kids showed up last year with insufficient hair or no hair at all," said Freddie Landry, the system's antidrug and school safety coordinator. "I don't think that's fair for those kids who did what they were supposed to do."

But some said the new policy, which was approved by the School Board in May, goes too far and stifles students' freedom of expression.

"To tell a kid he's got to wear his hair in a certain style, . . . in my opinion, that's going over the line," said Billy North, longtime head football coach at John Ehret High School in Marrero.

Melkile Favorite, father of West Jefferson High School football standout Marlon Favorite, agreed that the policy seems unfair for students who choose short hair. "Some kids wear their hair low," he said. "That's the style."

Cutting around test

The drug testing program found that fewer than 2 percent of the 2,800 students tested had drugs in their system.

But another number irked school officials: One hundred and thirty students had shaved their bodies, allegedly to avoid giving a hair sample.

Those students provided urine samples, which officials say are less comprehensive because they do not detect drug use over as long a period of time as hair samples.

Under the terms of the original policy, which was approved by the School Board in March 2002, students who test positive must undergo treatment before rejoining their activity, but the district does not report them to law enforcement agencies.

The program also includes a random testing component in which 25 percent of previously tested students are selected by computer for retesting. The program also includes voluntary testing for all students at Ehret and East Jefferson High School in Metairie.

The voluntary portion of the program will expand in the fall to include all high schools, junior highs and middle schools. The board approved the expansion in May, along with the revamped testing guidelines.

A more-complete picture

School officials say they are not dictating hairstyles but are merely setting a basic requirement for students who want to play sports or join other activities. The voluntary nature of sports and other groups gives the district the legal backing to make the requirement, Landry said.

"It was a disadvantage to the hair-tested students and an advantage to the urine-tested students," said lawyer Blaine Hebert, who sits on an advisory council overseeing the program. "We want uniformity across the board."

A hair sample can detect drug use as far back as four months, but a urine test, even for a chronic drug user, might only go back about 30 days, Hebert said.

Under the old policy, the 130 students who gave urine samples had to be retested on a monthly basis, a more rigorous schedule than hair-tested students because of the time span difference, Landry said. But even that rule was not enough to justify using different tests on different students, she said, adding that the monthly tests also were becoming expensive.

Landry said the 130 students had shaved nearly their entire bodies to avoid giving a hair sample.

By the end of the school year, though, all of those students had enough hair to give an adequate sample, she said. At least a half-inch of hair is needed for the test.

Hebert said he thinks the shaved students were more "testing their rights" than masking drug use.

'Same goal in mind'

Under the revamped policy, students are allowed to provide body hair samples instead of hair from their heads. Officials can take all body hair except pubic hair, according to the policy.

North said he has been critical of the district's drug policy since its inception, believing that random urine testing would be a better deterrent to drug use.

"I don't think that hair testing is as accurate as they say it is," he said, adding that he agrees with district officials about the need for some form of testing. "We all have the same goal in mind. We just want to take different paths."

In addition, he said, hair tests do not check on use of "performance-enhancing drugs" such as steroids, which are the most serious problem in athletics. Urine samples give a fuller picture of drug history, North said.

Landry said testing for the nearly 40 types of steroids would be too expensive.

Even though his son maintains a short haircut, Melkile Favorite said he respects the policy's attempt to keep students drug-free. If necessary, he will encourage his son, who will be a senior next year and is being recruited by several top colleges, to grow his hair longer. "I don't think anything is going to stop him from playing sports," Favorite said.

Word of the policy changes spread to coaches soon after the board's May approval, Landry said, adding that it has been their responsibility to inform athletes and their parents.

School officials also are planning visits to schools and will create brochures about the policy to distribute when school starts in August.

The program is being financed with a federal grant that District Attorney Paul Connick Jr. and U.S. Rep. David Vitter, R-Metairie, helped secure.